For the last three years, Uncomfortable Oxford has been bringing the neglected and contentious histories of the City of Dreaming Spires to life. Now we're very proud to celebrate a new milestone in the Uncomfortable project with this guest post from our first sister organisation...
There’s an unusual lamp post in Cambridge, in the middle of a stretch of green space called Parker’s Piece. It’s huge, ornate, old-fashioned; an imposing Victorian-style feature standing at the intersection of the diagonal paths that crisscross the park.
At eye-level, it is inscribed with the words ‘Reality Checkpoint’. They were painted there in 2017 by the artist Emma Smith, but had been scratched and graffitied on the post for decades.
Reality Checkpoint marks the boundary between the university “bubble” and the “real world” beyond. It’s believed that students from Anglia Ruskin University are behind the name of the lamp post, calling out the University of Cambridge for its monopoly over the city. For many, it is a powerful symbol of the tensions between “town and gown” that have defined Cambridge's history for 800 years.
The lamp post is a fascinating feature of the built environment that testifies to an uncomfortable history of inequality and elitism. These are the stories we have been researching for Uncomfortable Cambridge, and the city is overflowing with them.
Cambridge is the most unequal city in the UK. In 2018, the Centre for Cities found that the top 6% of Cambridge earners took home 19% of the total income of city residents, while those in the bottom 20% took home just 2%. These inequalities have long histories. Over the centuries, the University has pushed local residents out of the city centre, determinedly creating the “gown” bubble critiqued by Reality Checkpoint. For example, when King Henry VI constructed King’s College in the fifteenth century, he ordered the removal of the homes and businesses of townspeople along the river, which was the busy centre of the medieval town. This destruction is what created the idyllic open lawns sloping down to the River Cam, which are now admired by 8 million tourists every year.
Cambridge’s wealth inequality has staggering consequences in the present. In 2017, the Consumer Data Research Centre found that people from one of the richest areas in the city, Newnham, lived for almost a decade longer than people from one of the poorest areas, King’s Hedges.
Every few years, there’s a new, horrific story about the disparity between the wealth of the Colleges and the poverty that exists alongside their ostentatious facades. In 2019, a woman experiencing homelessness gave birth to twins outside the gates of Trinity College. Trinity has an endowment of £1.87 billion.
Uncomfortable Cambridge puts these stories in their historical context, exploring the centuries of conflict, discrimination and exploitation that continue to shape the city. We ask questions like:
What should we do with controversial statues?
How should nations teach their histories?
Who has access to university education?
We go behind the iconic images of Cambridge to discuss legacies of empire, tensions between “town and gown”, racial inequality, and gender and LGBTQIA+ discrimination.
The first Uncomfortable Cambridge tours launched in April 2022, and will continue every weekend, starting from King’s Parade at 2.30pm.
For more information and bookings, visit the Uncomfortable Cambridge website.
Follow Uncomfortable Cambridge on Twitter: @UnCamProject
Written by Naoise Murphy
 'Cities Outlook 2018', Centre for Cities (2018), pp. 60-61.
 Josh Thomas, 'Life expectancy map of Cambridge shows startling results', Cambridge News (11 November 2017).
 Damien Gayle, 'Rough sleeper gives birth to twins outside wealthiest Cambridge college', The Guardian (26 December 2019).